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Decorated Soldier Picks the Best, and Worst, War Movies

I was attending a Christmas party over the holidays and, in the course of conversation, made the following statement:

“I can’t watch very many war movies anymore.”

My sister in-law, thinking I was talking about some kind of emotional issue said, “Of course…” I immediately interrupted her.

“No, it’s not some kind of PTSD thing or anything like that. It’s just that I think I’m hyper-critical and I end up taking myself out of the movie.”

This caused me to think about all the war films I watched over the years and which ones based on my experience actually bring something to the table. As a caveat, I fully admit that most of my criticisms are purely superficial. The layman would never notice or appreciate the difference if it was changed to be more accurate.

Additionally, I was a helicopter pilot for 24 years, so if I don’t notice that the guys in a stack getting ready to kick down a door weren’t oriented correctly that’s not my fault, it wasn’t my job in the Army.

THE CLASSICS

Even after multiple combat tours, I’ve watched these films again and can tell you they contain themes that resonate and hold true even after all these years.

“Fort Apache” (1948): Believe it or not I was first exposed to this film by our Brigade Commander when I served in the 6th Cavalry. If you watch “Fort Apache” and think about leadership, it’s quite instructive. John Wayne’s closing speech regarding “The Regiment” and those who were in it always being alive as long as the regiment exists certainly rings true with me today.

“The Caine Mutiny” (1954): A story about the Court Martial of several naval officers during WWII. Stay to end for the party, and you’ll get a nice surprise.

“Pork Chop Hill” (1959): This is a straightforward telling of an infantry combat assault during the Korean War featuring Gregory Peck.

“12 O’clock High” (1949): I don’t think the strain of command has ever had a better depiction on film. Gregory Peck once again is front and center.

MODERN WAR FILMS

The first “Modern Age” war film was 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Although one could make an argument for the war films of the late ’70s and ’80s (“Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon”) Spielberg’s classic established the tone for many of the features to follow. The hyper realism of the Normandy invasion scene alone sets a high bar for subsequent war movies.

Black Hawk Down (2001) Official Trailer 1 - Ewan McGregor Movie

2001’s “Black Hawk Down” was different for me because it was the first film I ever watched about an event that I had personal knowledge of. I wasn’t in Somalia in 1992, but I knew people who had been and had talked with them and had read the book the film was based on.

Overall, I felt they did an OK job and while I fully understand these things aren’t meant to be documentaries there was some stuff that could have been cleaned up.

RELATED: Your Complete Guide to the Best World War I Movies

Then we come to the Global War on Terror. I served three tours in Iraq (37 total months) between 2004 and 2010, so I feel I have a pretty good grasp on that place. I was never in Afghanistan, but there are commonalities and I do know and have talked extensively with people who have served there.

All that being said there have been some abysmal attempts at depicting both the service members that served and the action that has occurred in both places. First the bad, this is by no means all inclusive, I have neither the time nor inclination to sift through all this garbage.

The Hurt Locker (2008) Official Trailer - Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie Movie HD

“The Hurt Locker” is for Explosive Ordinance Disposal troops what “Top Gun” is for Navy fighter pilots and “Firebirds” is for Army Apache pilots… a train wreck. If you liked the film, good for you. Just know none of that stuff could have actually occurred in real life.

I know I should personally see something before condemning it, but I’ve heard and read enough about these movies to cross them off my list:

  • “Lions for Lambs”
  • “In the Valley of Elah”
  • “Green Zone”

I am totally down for a war comedy. “M*A*S*H*” is one of the best movies ever made. So, with “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” my main complaint isn’t that they’re trying to make a comedy from the absurdities of war. Hell, half my tour in 06-07 could be a remake of “Catch 22.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Official Trailer #1 (2016) - Tina Fey, Billy Bob Thorton Comedy HD

The problem with “WTF” is it couldn’t take what was actually there and use it. The filmmakers felt they needed to add things that were either unfunny or so unbelievable you asked yourself, “Who thought that crap up?”

The same could be said about the gun running/war profiteering film “War Dogs.”

The good. Once again, not all inclusive. I’m sure there are others out there that are awesome, too. I am not including documentaries. There are a lot of good documentary films out there like “Restrepo” and “Apache Warrior” to name just two.

Taking Chance” (2009). Kevin Bacon stars as a USMC officer tasked with bring home the remains of a Marine killed in action. It’s a very touching film that deserves your attention.

“American Sniper” (2014)  This is Clint Eastwood’s production of the Chris Kyle story. Kyle was a Navy SEAL from Texas with multiple combat tours. What I thought the film did really well was to show how combat, especially multiple tours, wears a person down and changes you over time.

American Sniper - Official Trailer 2 [HD]

There were other touches that showed a person with combat experience was advising them as well, such as the layout of their room in Iraq. But there were inaccuracies, too. Remember the tank rolling down a clean Iraqi street? For those of us who were there, that stands out like a sore thumb. Overall though, I thought it was a well-done film.

“Lone Survivor” (2015): Director Peter Berg’s telling the story of a group of Navy SEALs in Afghanistan. My main quibble is the film diverts from the real-life story to have a battle at the end complete with AH-64 gunships. I understand it was done for dramatic purposes and once again, it’s not a documentary…but for those who know it’s a bit off putting.

Lone Survivor Official Trailer #2 (2013) - Ben Foster Movie HD

What I find curious is why are all these current films about special operators or special operations forces? The forthcoming “12 Strong” is about 12 Special Forces (Green Berets) soldiers at the beginning of the War on Terror. Even ones I didn’t cover, like “Zero Dark Thirty,” were about operators.

There are plenty of stories to be told about “regular” soldiers. Look up Clinton Romesha sometime … Hollywood and anyone else would find it well worth it.


Dan McClinton was born in Waco, Texas and served in the United States Army for over 20 years as an Army Aviator, retiring at the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 in 2011. He served 37 total months in Iraq with the First Cavalry Division between 2004 and 2010 as an AH-64D Pilot in Command and Air Mission Commander. He is a Master Army Aviator and has traveled around the world as part of his duties in the service of this nation. He was awarded the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 7 Air Medals during his military career.

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34 Comments

  1. “Look up Clinton Romesha sometime … Hollywood and anyone else would find it well worth it.”

    What a great suggestion. I hadn’t heard of him before, but that is a very worthy candidate.

    Thanks for your service

      1. York did not relish publicity and did not want the movie made. He only relented in the run up to WW2.

        I can not imagine the movie being made today.

        1. Another thing that would stop Hollywood from making it today is its totally positive portrayal of Yorks innocent idealism, and its positive portrayal of Yorks faith and patriotism. That was what made it look corny by todays standards, which also made me love it.

  2. The Longest Day was good, but I don’t disagree with any if the choices here. I agree with ngrealy that Midway deserves a look. And while Platoon is preposterous, the combat scene filmed 6 inches off the ground was the first time I ever saw a movie show what combat was actually like for the grunt. As for the whole feel of infantry combat, most of which consists of waiting, A Walk in the Sun always seemed to me to feel right. It was filmed right at the end of WWII when there were lots of very recent veterans around.

  3. My father was in destroyers, primarily antisub. He never missed a showing of “The Enemy Below”. Sure, it was WWII and therefore a few years earlier than his experience, but it was awfully good.

    1. Several great naval films were omitted, but as it was a grunt list (even if he was a fly-boy), I gave him a pass. As for my addition, the incomparable Das Boot is a must see.

    2. I agree, I definitely like that one. The best part was the struggle between the minds of the 2 captains, 2 guys that really knew their jobs, in the ultimate game.

    1. Thank you for the reference to “When Trumpets Fade.” I am caring for a WW2 widow whose husband is MIA in Hurtgen. He was a medic.

  4. During Vietnam, Hollywood portrayed soldiers as ‘baby killers’. The current narrative is that soldiers are poor victims having stumbled into this newest corner of Hell by no fault of their own without any context as to the larger story or what they’re fighting for. You could take most of the modern war movies from “Dunkirk” to “Fury” and simply rename them all “War is Hell” and they would become a amorphous blob of cinematography.

  5. I think The Longest Day was a masterpiece in that it portrayed all sides and most facets of the battle. After watching it, one understood the basics of both the Allied offense and German defense as well as the cover plan distractions.

  6. The authors comments about Hollywood’s focus on special operators rings true. It is also true that the Green Berets, Rangers and SEALS have really gotten a workout in the last fifteen years. Counterinsurgency, raids, and Foreign Internal Defense have all been explored.

    1. Drama. It’s all about drama, and story-telling. A story about a few men is easier to tell and more visually compelling.

      I’ve heard more than a few vets complain about Hurt Locker, but they don’t address what went on behind the scenes. They didn’t have the budget to film the portrayed events accurately, so they decided to pare the story down to a minimal number of roles. It goes back to good story-telling, even though it was factually inaccurate.

      Even John Wayne movies were inaccurate. Ask the older D.I.s about the “John Wayne stunts” they saw in Basic Training that would get kids killed on the battlefield. The trainees acted that was because they were brought up on John Wayne WW2 movies that were unrealistic to a great degree. A more modern variant are the kids who are inducted with the idea they can imitate Rambo. That’s a good way to die.

  7. “What I find curious is why are all these current films about special operators or special operations forces? ”

    Exactly! As a Marine veteran, I wish the gunfighters would go back to being celer, silens, morte, especially the silens part, y’know? Jarheads used to be the cinematic billy bad asses, but now you can’t swing a cat in a movie theater without hitting a black beard with cool sunglasses.

    I’m just saying. Yo.

  8. I think the Hollywood focus on operators comes from several stimuli.

    First, it seems in keeping with the “super hero” trope that has been oh so successful. These aren’t just warriors, they are “elite” warriors, legendary for their prowess, stamina, aim, commitment, and deeds of daring do.

    Second, all joking aside, operators pretty much are the “elite” I described above, and assigned to the tougher and sexier missions, the sorts of missions that often make good entertaining movies.

    Third, operators work in small groups, allowing greater focus on individual characters. It’s just easier to build an ensemble piece around a half dozen archetypes that are easily recognized than trying to write a few interesting characters out of a cast of hundreds, if not thousands. Even Private Ryan pulled the cast out of the big Army to allow better individual characterization before shoving them back into a large force for the final battle. With operators, they start small and stay small.

    Finally, I think there is a social/political angle, too. The GWOT is the first war in which a plurality of MOH winners were awarded for either sacrificing themselves and/or saving their comrades. Very few highly publicized awards have been given to people for seriously kicking enemy ass. This is, I think, a direct reflection of the general disdain for violence without consideration of the type or reason. But with operators, it’s different. In the eyes of Hollywood, they aren’t like normal Americans, who could never be praised for killing. They are legends, myths, “supermen.” So, for them to kill dozens, even if it is reflective of a real event, is not perceived as being as real as Johnny from down the street crawling through the ditch and ripping out someone’s belly.

  9. I am curious what this honored veteran thinks of The Long Road Home on NatGeo. I served in the infantry way back when the Soviets were our only problem so I have a bit of insight. I kind of like this series, but I would be very interested to hear what this fellow has to say.

  10. It may be too early to include the new Dunkirk film, but it was excellent.

    I have not watched Midway or Tora! Tora! Tora! for many years. If memory serves they are both historically accurate and honest. However, the visuals really kill me. There are scenes with carrier planes launching from ships with angled flight decks, the wrong historical footage of planes being edited in etc. The second point really bugs me. There is enough gun camera footage and general film available that if you need to show an F4F Wildcat you can find it. This is done time and time again.

    1. Simple. Gun camera footage didn’t give the image(s) or tell the story they wanted to tell. Not to mention 99% of the footage was crap compared to commercial movie making. That’s not a crack on the air forces involved, as gun cameras weren’t there to make pretty pictures. It should be self-evident that the producer/director wasn’t about to put in “accurate” footage which doesn’t connect with the story being told.

      I am tired of seeing the same tired, old gun camera shots used over & over again. Lucas’ Red Tails had a lame script, but excellent FX. It’s the first time the 332dn FG was shown with historically accurate planes.

      That goes back to your complaint: by the 1960s there weren’t that many flying copies of naval fighters available. They took what they could get. One might as well complain about the AT-6 Texans modified to look like Zeros, or the F-5s painted in aggressor colors for TOP GUN (which is really TOPGUN, but never mind).

  11. I remember watching A Bridge Too Far and the Longest day as a kid with my Great uncle who fought in both Normandy and Operation Market Garden as a paratrooper. he would comment… “right… eh…. close… dead wrong….” as we progressed through the movies.

  12. “Big Red One” was written and directed by Sam Fuller, who served in 1st Infantry Division in WW2. It’s more than a little autobiographical.

    My dad served on a hospital ship in the Pacific in WW2, his brother was a crash crew medic at a B-17 base. They said “MASH” was very, very true to life.

  13. Forever ranking among the most poignant war films of all time will be “The Best Years of Our Lives”. That one pretty much sums it all up, and without a single battle scene. *sigh*

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